[This was the talk I gave recently at the Global Health and Humanitarian Summit which was held at Emory University in Atlanta in April. I was honored to be asked to be on the "Helping Humans Get Along With Humans" panel.]
Life never travels in a straight line. Go ahead, make a plan. Plan your future just as you see it—and I can almost guarantee that you won’t end up where you thought you would.
That’s what happened to me. In 2008, I was working a regular job, dropping my three-year-old daughter at daycare in the morning, and going home in the stultifying Atlanta traffic every evening. Then, in Sept. of that year, the banking industry took a nose dive and, having worked in the hotel real estate industry, I found myself in the second round of layoffs at my company. My boss looked like he might cry as I signed the separation notice. I called my husband on the way home, picked up my daughter from daycare thinking, “I’ll find another job within a few weeks—no problem.”
It’s now 2012 and I never did find a “real” job —what I did find was more of a calling. I woke up one day, after being unemployed for about a year, and decided that I would start a company. I would call this company, a brand, “Princess Free Zone” and my logo would be a tiara inside the universal “no” symbol. The tagline would be, “Come as you are.” My hope was to create product that offered an alternative to princess for little girls—like clothing, accessories and toys. At the time, I had no clue how I was going to do this, especially with no money, but I just knew that I had to. In order to get started, I sold my wedding ring. I think that’s when my husband realized how serious I was.
The reason I started it was that I had a little girl, named Gabi, who defied all the stereotypes of being a girl. She refused to wear girl clothing, play with girl toys, or even think of herself as a girl. She wanted to be like my husband who is a carpenter. So she had her own tool belt, work boots, and tools.
She was fiercely strong-willed and knew exactly who she was—even at that young age. In some ways, this was great. But also frustrating as I soon realized that, for girls like her, and girls in general, there is very little choice. Shopping for her was a nightmare. Nothing in girls departments or stores met with her approval—instead, we’d end up wandering through boys departments to find the things she liked along with a lot of pointing and staring from others. I know people were thinking, “what is that girl doing in the boys section?” And what were those "boy" things she liked? Mainly red, blue, or green colored tees with images of tools or trucks or soccer balls. Try to find browns and greens in a girls department. She also liked Legos (not the Lego Friends), flying helicopters, anything Star Wars, race cars. Try to find those in a girls department where you find yourself awash in a sea of pink.
The idea that all girls want to be princesses and are born with a hardwired affinity to all things pink was being proven wrong right in front of my eyes. And yet—there seemed to be a complete lack of recognition from companies, marketers and the media to this point—that all girls are not the same. At the time, I did not fully realize that these stereotypes are often a gateway to many that will follow and that often have profound effects on girls and women as they grow and develop. From early psychological issues like low self-esteem, to physical disorders like bulimia and anorexia, to later not pursuing more traditionally masculine careers in science, math, technology and engineering. And a fear of aging that has lead to a massive uptick in the plastic surgery industry.
As a result of my daughter, I became acutely aware of gender segmenting and stereotyping everywhere. In magazines, books, movies, music, commercials. For instance, I discovered research that showed the majority of main characters and title characters in children’s literature over the last 100 years were male including animal characters. One thing was for sure—even when I did see or read about girls, I rarely saw girls like Gabi represented in any of these outlets—and that meant she wasn’t seeing them either. This bothered me on a whole other level. Lack of role models for girls is a major problem especially in areas of science, politics and the media. The fact is, in the United States, while over half the population is female, only 16% are represented in Congress, 17% in the Senate and, of course, there has never been a female VP or President. Much is written about the lack of women in areas of STEM—research indicates that some of the contributing factors have to do with cultural attitudes that promote the idea that girls don’t do as well as boys in math.
And nothing like a t-shirt to reinforce that myth. This t-shirt from this past year was actually pulled as a result of an online position on Change.org. The same thing happened with Mattel and Barbie. In 1992, they created a talking Barbie that said, “Math class is tough,” and “Let’s go shopping.” There was a tremendous backlash as well. In Pink Brain, Blue Brain, Lise Eliot says this is called a “stereotype threat,” which has “shown repeatedly [in scientific tests] that women and minorities, when made aware of negative stereotypes about their groups, underperform white males on challenging exams.”
But growing up as a girl in the 70s, the children’s industry was very different. The sexes weren’t as separated as they are now in terms of product and marketing. These Lego ads are from the 1980s. You’d be hard-pressed to see ads like this today—especially with both boys and girls playing with the same toys.
Things have changed and are very different today in terms of how kids are marketed to. Children are considered consumers from birth and companies spend a ton of money on researching exactly how to entice kids to their way of thinking. Huge corporations, like Disney, spend billions of dollars to begin their incursion into a child’s life from birth. Seriously, they are literally in maternity wards around the country giving out Disney packages to newborns and their mothers. Here is another example: two rattles from Fisher Price—one is clearly for little baby girls and one for boys. Do rattles really need to be gender specific? They are clearly labeled—one for a “sweet infant girl,” which is a diamond ring rattle—you know because it’s never to early to let girls know their eventual goal is to have a giant rock on their finger! And for the “busy baby boy” a hammer—because boys will have to work hard to make the money to buy that ring.
Of course, I realize that infants don’t understand all of this, but from that point on, they will continue to be introduced to a slow drip of messages that will eventually be absorbed. Once they’ve outgrown the rattle there will be something else to take its place. So that by the time they’re three, girls will be drawn to pink while boys will adamantly reject it. But there is absolutely no shred of evidence that this is biological. In fact, there was a time when it was the opposite: in the early 1900s, pink was assigned to boys (from the more masculine red) and blue to girls (thought of as a symbol of calmness and purity). Both boys and girls are constantly being fed imagery that reinforces specific gender identifiers. For example, a friend of mine, from a boys advocacy organization called Achilles Effect, put together two word clouds based on the language in multiple children’s ads. The main words that were used to describe product for boys are action-oriented: battle, power, stealth, action, hero, transform, quick, jump, ride. The words used for girls passive and descriptive: totally, friendship, babies, glitter, style, nails, adorable, glamour, cute, hair, love. Ideas of masculinity and femininity are being narrowly defined and then wrapped up in either blue or pink packaging and sold to our kids.
Of course, princess has been around a long time—but not to this extent. When I was little, I can remember Snow White and Cinderella. And that’s pretty much it. What changed? In 2000, Disney created the “Princess Franchise” which was a way of combining all the princesses into one property and, subsequently, even more product. In the first year, without any advertising or marketing, sales were $300 million dollars. Who needs to advertise when girls are already primed for princess? From Disney alone there are over 26,000 princess items currently in the market. Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, just published last year, says, “Princess has not only become the fastest-growing brand that [Disney] has ever created, it is the largest franchise on the planet for girls age two to six.”
I must be crazy, right? Who was I to think I could muscle in on the firm grasp Disney has on little girls?
But here I was, with a three-year-old little girl who preferred trucks to dolls, pants to skirts, and dressing as Spiderman to Cinderella. And because of Gabi, I started to see other girls just like her—everywhere. At parties, at the dentist office, at her school. I started a FB page and people would leave posts about how their daughter was a PFZ girl. Undoubtedly, one of my primary goals for Princess Free Zone is to create a space for girls who are not girly—perhaps typically labeled as tomboys—but also to normalize the idea of a girl who does not like princess, pink, or standard girly things.
As parents, we all want what’s best for our kids, but often what we think is best—is not always good for them. A recent study out of Harvard's Pediatrics shows that one in every ten children is considered “gender-nonconforming.” In other words, a child who does not go along with the standard cultural gender stereotypes, also called “gender variant.” And what is disturbing, is that the study found that many of these children are at risk for abuse by parents or adults who attempt to force them to conform. The long term affects of this are psychological issues like post traumatic stress syndrome--some become suicidal. We see this intolerance in the media incessantly—a boy who has long hair or painted nails or wears pink, a girl who dresses like a boy, cuts her hair, and likes Star Wars are all victims of intense media scrutiny.
You may have heard of Shiloh Pitt, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s daughter, who has been mercilessly criticized for how she dresses with various articles asking “Why is Angelina trying to turn her daughter into a boy?” Obviously, the only reason her daughter would look like a boy is because Angelina wants her to be a boy. Huh? I’ve received comments like this—one woman asked me why I was trying to take the girly out of my daughter telling me that all girls like princess and sparkly things. And that I was a sick person. This is the very mindset that is harmful to children as they struggle with their identity. Cordelia Fine, in her book Delusions of Gender, says, “Children, keen to understand and find their place in society’s most salient social divide, are born into a half-changed world, to parents with half-changed minds.” In other words, there is much work to be done.
One of the underlying problems regarding why some parents can’t accept fully a “gender nonconforming” child is that there is an almost knee-jerk assumption that they are gay or transgender—and, unfortunately, for many people that is a fear. This tends to be more prevalent with boys who exhibit feminine behavior than girls who are boyish—and who tend to take more abuse as a result. The Harvard research article actually found that of the 6000 gender non-conforming subjects (now adults) surveyed—85% were heterosexual. But issues of gender identity often lead to some very revealing prejudices as well as the false notion that by prohibiting certain clothes or toys or behaviors, homosexuality or transgender can be prevented. This is at the core of those who believe gender is fixed and who are, themselves, completely indoctrinated to think that male and female are absolute concepts. Part of what I do, through my website blog and discourse, is to try and open people up to the idea that it is harmful to force children into their own ideas of gender. And while my hope is to help children embrace differences, it is imperative that adults do the same—and that’s a much more difficult conversation.
Bullying is an inevitable consequence of being perceived as different, especially when it comes to gender stereotyping. Boys who don’t act manly or are timid or shy and for girls who don’t wear makeup, have short hair, or are overweight. These are all attributes children learn to associate with how girls and boys are supposed to be—and when kids don’t fit into these very set images, they react immediately because they’ve been conditioned, by everything they see around them, to understand gender as a set of limited boundaries. When someone steps outside of those boundaries—a foul is called. Those fouls can be in various forms—when my daughter recently chose to cut her hair short, she spent days having to justify it to those kids who kept telling her she looked like a boy or asking her why she wanted to be a boy. There was one kid in particular who had to be dealt with because he wouldn’t stop.
When I read my book to kids or do a presentation about what I am doing, I try to talk about these issues. Recently, I spoke to about fifty fifth grade girls at a local Atlanta school. We discussed what “stereotyping” meant. After they tried to come up with examples of stereotyping, I explained to them that it is when we use the word “all” to describe certain people. “All girls do this,” or “All boys are like this.” But I asked them if all girls were the same? They said, No. We talked about how everyone is unique.They nodded their heads in agreement. Then I asked them if they thought it was okay for boys to play with dolls. In unison, they all shouted, “NO!” "Really?" I asked, "why not?" They said, “Because dolls are for girls.” I told them they were stereotyping. Then I said, “Let me ask you a question, "Do boys become fathers?” They said, “Yes.” I asked, “Do fathers hold their babies?” "Yes." “Do fathers change diapers?” "Yes." "Do they love their babies?" I asked. "Yes!" “So why can’t boys play with dolls?” One girl said, “Because boys are rough.” I asked her, "Are ALL boys rough? Are some girls rough?" I could see they were a bit confused now. And I could tell that I’d made them think.
This is the reason I have also written a book about a new kind of female super hero inspired by my daughter and for kids everywhere. Her name is Lula—she is a girl who loves helping her dad with carpentry projects, science, playing the drums and hanging out with her friends in their fort, The Good Builders Club. After being bullied herself for seeming more like a boy than a girl, her father tells her that she’s inherited something from her grandfather—super hero status. As Super Tool Lula, she transforms bullies with the help of her magic tools who all come to life and tool belt. She has special goggles that send "kind waves" right into the heart of a bully allowing them to see how their actions hurt others while being transformed themselves. She is out to teach kids that being kind is cool.
I have read my book to elementary school kids in the Atlanta area and have had a great response. I also perform a couple of songs I’ve written to go along with the book. Children seem to love the idea of Lula as a super hero, but I’ve had parents tell me that, afterward, their child initiated a conversation with them about it. I firmly believe that beginning a dialogue with children early on about what it means to be compassionate and accepting is key to preventing bullying later on. In addition, because the character of Lula is not a “girly” girl, she offers another way for children to see girls. This is also important for boys who need to see girls as more than princesses. Young children are still open and receptive to accepting differences—it is a critical time to instill these kinds of lessons. This message of kindness works hand-in-hand with Princess Free Zone’s underlying philosophy and mission.
So, as you can see—what began as a desire to create more options for girls has turned into a much more personal crusade and has become part of a larger social movement that includes many organizations both for-and non-profits. While my ultimate goal is to bring Princess Free Zone and Super Tool Lula to market by creating unique merchandise for girls, and hopefully, be able to make a living doing it—I can no longer separate the social component of the brand—nor would I want to. There have been some doubters along the way, some who don’t believe this is a big enough problem to warrant such an effort, or some who just don’t see the big deal. To them, I always say that helping to raise healthy, happy, confident girls who will become successful women is worth every effort I can muster. I also believe it is necessary to not only helping change the mindset of those who think that all girls are the same, but to allow greater freedoms for all children to express who they truly are.
Lise Eliot, Pink Brain Blue Brain
Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender
Peggy Orenstein, Cinderella Ate My Daughter
Andrea Roberts, Margaret Rosario, Heather Corliss, Karestan Koenen and S. Bryn Austin, "Childhood Gender Nonconformity: A Rish Indicator for Childhood Abuse and Posttraumatic Stress in Youth." Pediatrics, Volum 129, Number 3, March 2012.